It started with a kiss – or did it? Liszt and Beethoven meet in Vienna


There are various accounts of Liszt’s encounter with Beethoven in Vienna in 1823, and it’s hard to get at the truth. Least likely is Ludwig Nohl’s version of the encounter, which describes Beethoven going up to Liszt after the boy performed in the small Redoutensaal on April 13, 1823, and planting a kiss on the child’s forehead, often referred to as the Weihekuss.  We know from Beethoven’s conversation books that Beethoven did not attend the concert, according to his nephew Karl. The lithograph above, published in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of Liszt’s Viennese debut, has a lot to answer for in terms of perpetuating the myth.

The conversation books do record the actual meeting though; Liszt’s father took him to Beethoven’s apartment a few days before the concert. Present at the encounter was Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary, and in use were the notebooks in which visitors wrote comments or posed questions for the deaf  Beethoven to read before he replied verbally. So this notated conversation, although one-sided, seems a more likely source.

Quoting from Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, which also erroneously mentions the Nohl version of the Weihekuss, the exchange commences with an entry purported to be written by Liszt’s father :

I have often expressed the wish to Herr von Schindler to make your high acquaintance and am rejoiced to be able now to do so. As I shall give a concert on Sunday the 13th I must humbly beg you to give me your high presence.

The day before the concert, Schindler writes: Little Liszt has urgently requested me humbly to beg you for a theme on which he wishes to improvise at his concert tomorrow…

He will not break the seal till the time comes …

The little fellow’s free improvisations cannot yet, striclty speaking, be interpreted as such. The lad is a true pianist, but as far as improvisation is concerned, the day is still far off when one can say that he improvises.

Carl Czerny is his teacher. 
Just eleven years. 

It is unfortunate that the lad is in Czerny’s hands …

Won’t you make up for the rather unfriendly reception of the other day by coming tomorrow to little Liszt’s concert?

It will encourage the boy. Will you promise me to come?

Do come, it will certainly amuse Karl to hear how the little fellow plays.

But even this source presents doubts, as Schindler was found to have made additions to Beethoven’s notebooks; dissatisfaction with Schindler’s biography of Beethoven led Thayer to undertake his own research.

So what really happened?



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#BTHVN2020 – Open to View

It’s on the horizon; the countdown has begun. Next year marks Beethoven’s 250th Anniversary celebrations; in fact, the celebrations start in December 2019, promising  a year of exciting concerts and events worldwide.

But I’m starting early, partly inspired by a photograph of Liszt taken in his Weimar study, and by my visit to that room in 2017. The room is unchanged since Liszt lived there, complete with pianos, furniture, and personal items, including Liszt’s conducting batons, and a pair of his spectacles – pince-nez, in fact.


It’s the picture of Beethoven on the wall which has always caught my attention, and the relationship between the two composers is my starting point. They met when Liszt was a small boy; Liszt studied with Czerny, who was Beethoven’s pupil. Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s nine symphonies for solo piano – an extraordinary feat. Playing the transcriptions is even more of a feat; one of my piano teachers, Ronald Smith, recorded and regularly performed the transcription of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  Leslie Howard has recorded all of them. Liszt performed Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto in Paris, conducted by Berlioz, and performed it at the unveiling of the Beethoven monument in Bonn in 1845, where he also conducted Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

So this year I plan to look at music by Beethoven and by Liszt, and to look at Beethoven through Liszt’s eyes, and the eyes of others who knew him. The eyes have it.

#BTHVN2020 – Open to View.

Franz Liszt conducting


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Chopin, Paderewski and a Search for a Tree

The Chopin Museum in Poland is a pianist’s delight. It has two locations; one at his birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, which I didn’t visit, and the other at the Ostrogski Palace in Warsaw, where I spent several hours. There, one can gaze at letters and visiting cards, schoolboy calligraphy, drawings, Chopin‘s Paris piano, notebooks, letters from contemporaries, personal belongings and much more. Above all, there are the manuscripts; it is fascinating to see the neat, carefully beamed demisemiquavers and stratospherically high leger lines in his early works, and the later scribblings and corrections in more mature works-in-progress, as if he were in a hurry to transcribe the music from his inner ear to the page. A quick view of both museums can be seen here.

My eternal love for Chopin has been combined this year with a growing interest in the life and music of Ignace Paderewski, pianist, composer and statesman, who not only toured the world as a virtuoso pianist, but who also signed the 1919 Treaty of Versailles after WW1 as Poland’s Prime Minister. In September I performed music by Chopin and Paderewski at Highclere Castle, television’s ’Downton Abbey’, celebrating 100 years of Polish Independence. Earlier in the year, Ognisko Polskie, the Polish Hearth Club in London, formed by the British Government and the Polish government-in-exile in 1939, kindly invited me to perform Chopin and Paderewski’s music in a recital prior to a screening of the film Moonlight Sonata, in which Paderewski, appearing as himself, performs music by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, and his own Menuet Op 14 No 1. 

Everyone who learnt the piano in the early 20th century played that piece. My mother used to speak of my grandmother’s interpretation of it. Family legend says that grandma heard Paderewski in a live concert. He toured Australia in 1904 and 1927 and I’ve always felt a connection with him because of that story. A generous philanthropist, Paderewski donated the proceeds of his two final concerts in Sydney and in Melbourne in 1927 to support the orphans of the ANZAC soldiers killed in Gallipoli. 

When in Melbourne in 1904, he planted a tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens near the Victorian College of the Arts where I studied; it seemed an appropriate gesture to celebrate this year‘s centenary of Polish Independence and my current blogpost theme, The Romantic Piano, by finding the tree. So, armed with a map of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, I set off yesterday afternoon on my quest. 

‘It will be somewhere on the Central Lawn,’  said the helpful Visitor Centre receptionist, marking my map with an approximate location. ‘It‘s an Aesculus x hybrida.’ 

Ah. First, find the lawn … and what a lot of trees there are on said lawn … And what on earth does an Aesculus x hybrida look like … it must be fairly big now, 114 years old … scrabbling around beneath the low-lying branches to find the tree labels … no … no … no … YES! A true Eureka moment. 

The music critic in Brisbane’s newspaper The Telegraph wrote, on Friday 8 April 1927: ‘Paderewski plays all things magnificently, but there is a fragrance about his Chopin playing that will linger long in the memory of those privileged to hear it.’ Did grandma experience that? Who’s to know, but Paderewski’s tree still lingers on, bringing beauty to Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, and perhaps fragrance, too. 

From Australia, a very Happy New Year to you all, wherever you are on the globe.

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The Heart of the Matter – Chopin’s heart at the Church of the Holy Cross, Warsaw. And his final Mazurka…

‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. These words, from St Matthew’s gospel, are the words on the pillar of  the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw where Chopin’s heart is interred. A single red rose lay at the foot of the pillar on the day of our visit.

Unlike our visit to Chopin’s grave in Paris some years ago, we managed to escape the crowds for a few minutes’ peace in this beautiful church.

Smuggled into Warsaw by his sister Ludwicka after Chopin’s death in 1849,  and preserved in a wax-sealed jar of cognac, Chopin’s heart remains a symbol of Polish identity, a precious, revered relic from one of Poland’s greatest sons.  It was removed from the Church during the WWII Warsaw Uprising and given to the Auxiliary Bishop in Warsaw.

The photograph (right) shows its ceremonial return to the church in October 1945. But, as the 1945 photograph below shows, there wasn’t much of the church left to which it could be returned.





Happily, the church is now fully restored.

Legend says that Chopin’s final work was composed on his death-bed in Paris. My teacher, Ronald Smith, researched the piece –  Mazurka Op 68 No 4 – reconstructing it from the manuscript. Ronald published his own edition, performed it many times, and recorded it for EMI, writing in an accompanying note:

”Fontana published the Mazurka in F Minor in an incomplete form in 1855 and his claim that the work was written on the composer’s death-bed and that the master was too ill to try it out at the keyboard is almost certainly without foundation. The notable Chopin scholar, Arthur Hedley, discovered the original manuscript in private possession in France in 1951. He made an on-the-spot reconstruction of a previously missing second episode in F major and several performances were given in this version. Subsequently the manuscript passed to Poland, resulting in a scholarly publication of the entire piece in 1965  which also prints a facsimile of the manuscript. Both Hedley’s 32-bar version of the F major section and this Polish edition’s 16 bars contain serious errors – though quite different ones. At first glance Chopin’s manuscript discloses little more than a riot of alterations often cramped into any available space, their continuity only indicated by a series of spidery pointers.
Scrutiny confirms that this is no mere sketch but a complete work from which Chopin was probably too ill to make a fair copy. The Polish edition, which goes a long way to reveal formerly hidden subtleties in the outer section, takes a disastrous short-cut in the F major episode. Hedley’s version is correct in its overall shape, but simplifications of harmony and register suggest that he was obliged to complete his reconstruction from memory. The version that appears ….[below]… is based exclusively on Chopin’s manuscript, the evidence having been painstakingly sifted in the light of Chopin’s other compositions.”

And here is a live 1995 recording  by Ronald Smith –

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Chopin the Organist

You can’t get away from Chopin in Warsaw. There’s no escape – from the moment you set foot in the Arrivals Hall of Warsaw Chopin Airport to walking the streets of the Old Town where there are Chopin benches (push the button for a quick blast of some music), and many advertisements for Chopin recitals here, there, and everywhere. Nor would a pianist wish to escape. Chopin is the reason why we are here.

So where to start? We began almost by accident, entering the first Baroque style church encountered on a walk near the Old Town. The Church of the Nuns of the Visitation escaped the devastation suffered by much of the city in WWII. Why is it significant? Because it was here that the fifteen year old Chopin played the organ each Sunday while a pupil at the Warsaw Lyceum.

It’s easy to forget that Chopin was an organist as well as a pianist. When he and George Sand were forced to move to the abandoned monastery in Valdemossa on the island of Majorca during the winter of 1838-1839, they expected to find an organ in the chapel; but no. The Carthusian monks are a silent order. The beautiful chorale-like section in the central part of Scherzo No 3, composed in the monastery where a Pleyel piano eventually was transported, is perhaps a moment of wishful thinking.


After leaving the island, very ill,  Chopin convalesced in Barcelona; moving on to Marseilles, he played an arrangement of a Schubert lied on the organ at the funeral of the operatic tenor Adolphe Nourrit.

Think, too, of the bass line of Chopin’s famous ‘Funeral March’, played on the organ of La Madeleine in Paris at his own funeral. In the piano version, the LH intones a solemn B flat, D flat, B flat, D flat etc. Now imagine that transcribed for organ, played by feet on the pedalboard. Left foot on B flat, right foot on D flat, left, right, left, right …. and the posssibility of a physically inspired origin of this grim march becomes apparent.

Chopin’s love of fellow organist Bach’s music is well documented. A copy of the Preludes and Fugues for Clavier travelled with Chopin to Majorca. Chopin’s musical instruction at the Warsaw Conservatory included hours of lessons each week in counterpoint. The polyphonic episode in the 4th Ballade shows Chopin’s mastery of the technique.

Below – Chopin’s Funeral March, played on the organ.



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Down and out in Warsaw and Vienna? Chopin, Scherzo No 1 in B Minor

Chopin’s four Scherzi are currently in my repertoire, each written at an interesting stage in the composer’s life. The genial fourth scherzo, Op 54,  was composed during a summer spent at Nohant with Aurore Dudevant, better known as the writer George Sand; the third scherzo, again with George Sand present, was composed during the winter months of 1838-1839 in a deserted monastery on the island of Majorca. The confident second scherzo, Op 31 , dates from 1837 in Paris before George Sand was a part of Chopin’s life, and likewise the first Scherzo Op 20 pre-dates their relationship. I love them all, and they are very satisfying to perform as a set, each one with its own character. But I’ll admit to a penchant for the first scherzo, as it was the first ‘big’ piece of Chopin which I learnt as a teenager. And also, its beginnings are shrouded in mystery, so I find it intriguing.

It was published in 1835 when Chopin was established in Paris, having arrived there in 1831. The dedicatee, Thomas Albrecht, was attaché to the Saxon diplomatic mission in Paris. But when and where was it composed? Like many early published works, it was written in advance of Chopin’s arrival and establishment as one of the French capital’s leading pianists. Publications followed Chopin’s success, in London, Paris and Leipzig, although interestingly Chopin’s Trio Op 9 was first published in London in 1830.

It has been suggested that the first scherzo might date from 1830-1831. November 2 1830 marks the date of Chopin’s departure from Warsaw – never to return. Later that month, the November Uprising erupted, an armed rebellion against Russian forces. Chopin learnt of this via letter; has friend Titus, who was travelling with him, turned back to Warsaw. Chopin travelled on alone, spending Christmas in Vienna, wandering around St Stephen’s Cathedral (below). One wonders if that influenced the choice of a Polish Christmas carol as the basis for the peaceful central section. The open of the Scherzo is shocking – literally – two unexpected loud chords, like an unprovoked slap in the face, before the RH hurriedly claws it’s way up the piano in a repeated frenzy, the LH trying to check and restrain its impetuosity. Interludes of a more rhetorical nature, full of questioning and despair, alternate with the headlong rush, until all is calmed by the central section. But those two chords break in again and the frenzy is resumed. A final coda builds to a shattering climax, with an agonised chord pounded repeatedly before a chromatic scale rips up the piano to the final, emphatic chords.

I’m in Warsaw as I write, soaking up Polish culture and immersing myself in Chopin’s life and times. More anon.


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On Wagner’s Birthday – Liebestod – from Tristan und Isolde – Wagner/Liszt

Following  April 23rd’s post, written on the joint birthdays of Prokofiev and Shakespeare, today’s post is written on Richard Wagner’s birthday, and the piece is the Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, transcribed for the piano by Liszt. A double dose of the Romantic piano, both in subject matter and musical style, as the grieving but rapturous Isolde dies by the body of her beloved Tristan at the conclusion of Wagner’s opera, in a blaze of chromatic harmony.

Liszt was an adept transcriber of other people’s music, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique  in 1833 after its premiere in Paris, all of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Schubert songs, Bach cantata movements, instrumental pieces and countless operatic themes. Operatic fantasies and paraphrases tended to include original material as well as the opera’s best-known  melodies, such as those found in the Rigoletto Paraphrase.But some transcriptions were almost verbatim adaptations for piano, and this is one of them.

Liszt was a skilled orchestrator and conductor himself, honing his skills while     Kappellmeister at the court of  Carl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Weimar, from 1848-1861. Not only that, but Liszt championed the music of Wagner, conducting numerous operatic performances; he knew Wagner’s style from the perspective of the composer’s orchestral soundworld.

In the Liebestod transcription, Liszt translates Wagner’s shimmering strings and Isolde’s aria into quiet tremolandi for piano accompanying the soprano’s line, which is projected with a cantabile, singing touch amidst a swirling texture of quasi-polyphonic complexity. There are important counter-melodies to project, and chords to be voiced judiciously. The music gradually builds in a series of ever-impassioned sequences until a shattering, ecstatic climax engulfs us all, both the performer and audience. As a solo pianist confined to ten fingers, one can almost feel Liszt’s frustration as he strives to get the maximum sound from the instrument, with pounded chords in both hands trying desperately to emulate the sound of a huge orchestra playing at full strength. Slowly and gradually the music subsides into blissful exaltation as Isolde slips away to join her lover in death.

Dare I point out, dear Liszt, that the final D sharp of the oboes in the penultimate bar really should be heard as a tie with all other instruments lifting briefly, as per the orchestral score? Try releasing all notes except a treble clef D sharp momentarily in between the final two bars, re-pedal, then play the last chord. Just a thought.

Two performances to enjoy – Horowitz, and then Hamelin, where the score can be followed.

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